The first thing that’s noticeable about This Census-Taker is its marketing. I’d imagine that author China Mieville had the following conversation with his publicist: “Say mate, I have this little novella lying around. It’s only about 140 pages but I can’t expand it into a full novel. I don’t see how. I’m not sure what to do with it.”
Agent: “We’ll publish it anyway. But we’ll stick to hardbacks to keep the prices high. On top, we’ll start with big hardbacks with those serrated pages and then move to little ones, and we’ll put your name on it in gold letters. It will look like a beautiful little jewel.” It worked, because I bought it.
This Census-Taker starts out like a Gene Wolfe novel. We have an unreliable narrator, a boy, telling us in first person about his life. But things don’t add up. He doesn’t tell us everything that needs to be told. And he seems to confuse the identities of his own mother and father. We start the novel in medias res because the boy saw something disturbing happening between his parents and runs away, but when he’s questioned he starts confusing their roles. He also describes his mother as strong and handsome. There’s something strange about everything he tells us, but it’s hard to put your finger on it.
The story of the boy is a bit sad. He has such little emotional connection to his parents. It is an uncomfortable tale of disconnect and the presence and fear of death, and some hints of magic. The story is a bit haphazard, talking about everything and nothing. But the theme of killing is disturbingly present. The real import of it all remains frustratingly obscure. The story is told at the edges, insinuating meanings.
It is quite a hard little nut to crack, an uncomfortable book that leaves readers hanging in confusion. Add to that a sense of dread and disconnect. Almost no one has names either. The boy himself and his parents are never named, and the mystery of the story is approached sideways in the text through hints and descriptions that partly obscure instead of illuminate. So, the dissociation between him and his parents is at the same time present between us, the readers, and the story itself. The boy is alone and groping for handholds, and so are we.
There is a strong metaphorical element to this story. You could read it as a fantasy interpretation of a traumatized family and a boy growing up while not understanding the adult world. But the boy creates his own order by collecting facts and itemizing everything in life. He is the census-taker. But that seems to be all there is to it. The story doesn’t go anywhere fast. It is focused heavily on one place, one town, one house, one family.
It’s a story in a bottle, that morphs and grows a bit, but doesn’t escape from these glass walls. Simultaneously, the boy himself is also contained within a delineated space, like a boy in a bottle, growing too large to escape from the bottleneck of the environment of his youth.
This Census-Taker, although metaphorically very clever and beautifully contained within itself, nevertheless didn’t grab me. There was no forward momentum to it. Those 140 pages were quite long.